December 19, 2004

State of the Prisons

Hm, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that many states are facing looming fiscal shortfalls in the coming year. This reminds me of something I've wanted to talk about for awhile: prison policy on the state level. (Whoo!)

You'd never know it from the Bush-Dukakis debates of yore, but prison policy is essentially a state concern: of the 2,000,000 people incarcerated nationwide, less than 160,000 are federal prisoners. The rest manage to swell state budgets. Nosing around in this report, meanwhile, it appears that corrections is the only state function that has consistently grown as a percentage of state budgets since 1987 (excluding Medicaid, whose expenditures are set by the federal government). The good news, however, is that a lot of smart, sensible changes to the system—like adequately funding parole programs to reduce recidivism rates—can be handled entirely by the state executive branch. Did everyone get the unilateralism memo? Good. (Unfortunately, sentencing laws are a lot harder to fix--thanks to both federal guidelines and punitive-minded state legislatures.)

Anyways, I don't know what particular advances have been made state to state thus far, but Democratic governors could quite easily get together and focus on a party-wide effort to decrease prison populations in their blue-governed states, via parole reform, community policing, or whatever else governors can get away with, and academic experts can agree on. (Surprisingly, experts can agree on a lot when it comes to reforming prisons; unfortunately no one listens to them.) It's true that crime control is no longer the national concern it was in, say, 1988 or 1992. But popular opinion has very much shifted away from harsher sentencing, and if the Democrats want to keep the mantle of reform, this is as good a place as any to start reforming things. The party's not going to get much of a chance to do stuff on the national level for at least two years, so the states are a good place to coordinate these sorts of efforts.
-- Brad Plumer 7:04 PM || ||